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Q&A: Author and artist bring Julia Greeley to life in new children’s book

As devotion to and intercession from Colorado’s own Servant of God Julia Greeley continues to grow, so, too, does awareness of her humble yet incredible life as Denver’s “Angel of Charity.”

Julia Greeley: Secret Angel to the Poor is a new children’s book that brings the story of Julia Greeley to life with vibrant watercolor illustrations and a heartwarming tale that recounts her steadfast devotion to the Sacred Heart and how her faith inspired her to quietly serve the poor. Julia was known for delivering food, clothes and other goods to families in need in the dark of night using a little red wagon.

Written by Maura Roan McKeegan and illustrated by Gina Capaldi, the book primarily draws inspiration from Father Blaine Burkey’s chronicle of Julia Greeley’s life, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley. As Julia’s cause for canonization continues to move forward, this book serves as yet another means for Julia’s selfless spirit of charity to live on and hopefully, inspire others — specifically, the kids and parents who read it — to share the love of Jesus, just as she did.

Maura and Gina were presented with a unique challenge in creating this book, as there is only one known image that exists of Julia Greeley and details about her life are still being unearthed. That said, they were so inspired by Julia’s story that they took on the challenge and crafted a beautiful children’s book that surely belongs in any child’s little red wagon. The ladies shared insight into the process of creating the book and what it was like to imagine the story in this medium.

How did you first learn about Julia Greeley’s story?
Maura Roan McKeegan: I first learned about Julia Greeley when a friend wrote to ask prayers for his sister-in-law, who was in an induced coma with sudden liver failure after an emergency surgery. The doctors were talking about taking her off life support. My friend said the family was seeking the intercession of Julia Greeley. I remember thinking to myself: Who is Julia Greeley?

I looked her up and was captivated by her story. I wanted to read more, so I ordered Father Blaine Burkey’s book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley. The more I read, the more I loved Julia. She became a dear heavenly friend whose intercession made a huge difference in my life.

Her intercession also made a huge difference for my friend’s sister-in-law, who made a remarkable recovery and was sent home from the hospital just days after the doctors had considered taking her off life support.

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Gina Capaldi: I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Julia Greeley before I was contacted by Maura Roan McKeegan. Maura and I had previously worked on other books, and I always trusted, and came to rely on her vision. When Maura sent the Julia Greeley manuscript to me, I knew I wanted to illustrate the book. Not only did I love the story but Maura’s writing is so stunning and lyrical.

Wow, what an honor to have been gifted with such a great project!

What was it about her that inspired you to write and illustrate this book?
Maura: Everything! Julia’s heart, her smile, her joy, her sense of humor, her faith, her devotion to the Sacred Heart, her thoughtfulness, and her incredible capacity for love and forgiveness despite the suffering and terrible mistreatment she endured were a tremendous inspiration to me.

As a children’s author, I felt called to write a book about her. Picture books are my hobby and my passion, and I dreamed of creating a picture book that would honor her, so that children and families everywhere could experience the gift of her love.

Gina: Julia’s work with the poor inspired me. She exemplifies how I believe we should all live — with humility, sacrifice and selflessness. While the life of Julia Greeley was remarkable, Maura’s words wove the story so well I could immediately see the images. This is rare for me as I usually I spend a ton of time trying to get a sense of the story, character, plot, setting, pacing, etc. But, the Julia Greeley story is so powerful that it immediately guided me. Again, this story is a gift all the way around.

How closely did you two collaborate when writing and illustrating this book?
Maura: Each of us worked independently, but we shared a common vision. The story was written first, and then Gina captured it beautifully with her watercolors. We live on opposite sides of the country, but our hearts were side by side in this mission. Both of us were greatly assisted by Father Blaine’s book, which provided the photographs and historical records on which we based our work.

Gina: Maura is too modest to mention her visual input and direction of this book. In fact, she purchased a copy of Father Blaine Burkey’s book, In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart: The Life and Virtues of Julia Greeley for me. There were many times that Maura guided me regarding its landmarks and the characters. In fact, I think it was during this time that we also Zoomed together to discuss this manuscript. I am so very grateful for Maura’s input and vision as this book is so very important. I feel Maura’s vision brought the illustrations to another level.

Gina, Since there are not a lot of images of Julia, what was it like creating these scenes with her from scratch?
Gina: This is a great question! The floppy hat was key and as a result, I purchased an old hat from eBay to help me get this right. I would say that the hardest part was showing Julia’s damaged eye. I did not want to cross any boundaries or make her look too frightening or distract from who Julia was. I imagine that she was so filled with joy and love that one would hardly notice her eye.

Maura, There are a lot of stories about Julia that could have been told in this book; why did you settle on this story in particular?
Maura: This story is a composite of many anecdotes about Julia. I would have loved to put in all the stories that have ever been recorded about her, but there is only so much space in a picture book. I needed to find a way to give readers a sense of who she was — of her personality, her work, her dedication and her love — within the framework of a short story. I chose to do that by writing a story that follows Julia through the course of about two days in her life. These two days give us a window into the people and places she loved and the immense charity that animated her soul. While the details in this book are fictionalized in order to bring the story to life for children through dialogue and actions, everything that happens in the book is based on true events and is within the realm of possibility. My goal has always been to honor Julia and to remain true to the principles that guided her life. In selecting which stories to use for the book, I aspired to reflect what was most important to her.

Julia Greeley: Secret Angel to the Poor is available for purchase now.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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